Monday, May 9, 2011

Robert Sapolsky: How I Write (Conversation Transcript)

Robert Sapolsky developed his writing skills doing field work in Africa. He was lonely. There was no radio or any other company, and “as a result you wind up sending letters to every human that you have known in your life in hopes that they would write back to you.” Some would, he would write numerous letters, often saying the same things but each time getting more concise. Today he likes to write with his laptop on the train commuting between San Francisco and Stanford – it’s “amazingly addictive” – which limits his writing to two hours a day. Sapolsky has to be careful: there’s the writing for his research, serious writing about neurological issues, often based on his research with primates; but then there’s the writing he’s gotten famous for, his essays in The New Yorker and other magazines and books on scientific issues written with broader audiences in mind. He points out that those scientists who write too much for popular audiences become “Saganized” (after Carl Sagan): they begin to loose credibility in the scientific community. And yet he has been called one of the top science writers in the country. In this talk, he reveals how he generates his ideas for articles – Who could imagine that People magazine could be such a vital tool? He discusses how he shapes his fascinations and anxieties into stories, how he talks it through with his wife and others, how he fashions books on a grander scale. He takes his writing very seriously – but above all it is a pleasure, something that he enjoys doing, and he allows us to visit the source of that fun.